Fascinating discussion going on at Professor Mondo’s place, if not a lengthy or lively one. In fact, it’s fizzled out into convivial chatter about car trouble after four posts. Nothing wrong with that at all, but I do hope there is more open discussion about the weightier subject.
As many know by now, toward the end of President Obama’s State of the Union speech, He got down to business and answered the question that is most pressing upon the minds of His fellow Americans as they tune in to watch His State of the Union speeches, which is: Now that we’ve elected a President and thus selected one man’s opinions to enjoy privilege over all others, what are those exactly? This is perhaps not what the Founding Fathers had in mind as they drafted the language requiring a SOTU. But it has become one of the key purposes involved in having it.
Obama channeled the spirit of that goofy Elizabeth Warren quote about nobody-did-it-on-their-own, cleverly blending it with a military theme, specifically, using the mission to neutralize Osama bin Laden as a metaphor for what He wanted to discuss:
All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job – the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other – because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s someone behind you, watching your back.
So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those fifty stars and those thirteen stripes. No one built this country on their own. This Nation is great because we built it together. This Nation is great because we worked as a team. This Nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.
Now for the critique. Conor Friedersdorf, at The Atlantic:
This is deeply wrongheaded.
Yes, we’re bound together as Americans in certain tasks, like defending the homeland and seeing that those who cannot care for themselves are provided with what they need. And there is agreement on certain broad goals: better educated children, safer infrastructure, etc. But a nation of 300 million free people doesn’t share a common purpose, nor should it; government’s role is to facilitate our ability to live as we see fit, not to bind us together like Navy SEALs on a military raid ordered up by our commander-in-chief. This nation is great because it affords such a diverse polity the opportunity to pursue happiness, not because “we built it together.”
(We didn’t in fact build it together.)
How can Obama say that the Bin Laden mission “only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other — because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s someone behind you, watching your back,” and add, “so it is with America”? It just isn’t that way with America. Lots of people within our polity mistrust one another, as is inevitable; in the post-WWII period of prosperity that Obama earlier invoked, there was segregation and the Red Scare and all manner of Americans short on mutual trust, and while there isn’t anything wrong with calling for less unfounded paranoia, positing that only a trusting nation can succeed fundamentally misunderstands our past and our future.
The strength of our system — the free markets, the best of our regulations, our very culture — is that it brings about progress even if the leader doesn’t himself know what energy investments will pay off; if we maintain the system, we’ll prosper even if the federal government doesn’t adeptly line up the economically efficient community college training program with the right applicant and employer; folks will find jobs even if we never develop the single perfect web site for job searches; we’ll thrive even if our diverse passions and values create mistrust and infighting.
Obama’s critics have long asserted that he doesn’t understand these core strengths of the American system. His State of the Union speech suggests they’re more right than I once imagined.
Here we get into a question about the Architect/Medicator divide, which I have a lot of trouble resolving, since I’m very far off on one side of the dividing barrier and this question has to do with people on the other side. The question doesn’t have to do with some of our achievements coming about because, and only because, we put aside our differences and labor together toward a common purpose; the President is right, in that that does happen, and it happens a lot. Nor is the question about the people who can understand this, and place priority on getting the message out to their peers and their fellows, that this is an important thing in life, that there are too many things that must be left undone if it doesn’t happen. That’s true too.
The question has to do with drive, zeal and enthusiasm. Our current President is under the impression that this is what America is all about — at least, He has said so. And this is plainly wrong. It’s wrong in the sense that, if this is all America represents, the entire experiment is a nullity and a futility. Mother England, after all, was driving us toward a common purpose just fine, and ideas of Independence were about as popular in the colonies as, oh, the invasion of Iraq…or even less so. Why revolt? Why separate? To even begin to answer the question, one must confess that Barack Hussein Caesar might’ve missed something. Perhaps He’d have a rationalization — in fact, I’m sure He does — but said rationalization cannot achieve its purpose unless it seeks to confuse, distort and obfuscate. Whether it does this to history, or to the current President’s remarks, I don’t care…it doesn’t much matter…what matters here is that we have an irreconcilable wrinkle in the layering between His comments and our nation’s true legacy.
Nor do I see anyone jettisoning their personal priorities and value systems for the sake of working with others. That part is a pure mythology, only it’s less forgivable than other mythologies because it is not artful, nor does it romanticize anything ancient. It is about the here and now, and there is something terribly distasteful about that. Show me the people who stop being Republicans and democrats, not only when they charge up stairs to shoot a terrorist, but other much more mundane things that involve working together. How about the ultimate one — voting? If the President’s comments mean anything at all, they would have to apply to that, since that’s the one time out of every two-to-four years where we must reconcile with the ideas of our fellows. Have we shown we have what it takes to do this? No. Are we spending any effort on it? I suppose some are, or at least are saying they are…would I bet money on it…no. It it important to us because we’re Americans? Em, no.
“I’d rather have clarity than agreement,” says Dennis Prager. And the rest of America says — well, some people like that, some don’t, but it really doesn’t matter what people say. The whole point to this observation is that when you ignore what people say and watch what they do, the whole damn country agrees with what he said. Not that we all like clarity all the time; some folks in fact prefer opacity, obfuscation and confusion. But everybody likes clarity at some time or another, because you need it in order to beat up the other guy.
I’m hearing the pre-election chatter, you really can’t get away from it, and it’s clear to me that the most opinionated folk are ready to cast their ballots to say just one thing above all other things. And that one thing they’re not ready to subordinate to any other thing for the sake of getting along with others, thank you very much; it must remain out in front. That’s just fine, in and of itself — although it makes President Obama clearly wrong in what He said — my one thing, just by way of offering an example, is we need to do a better job of rejecting socialism.
The loudest among us, and because they’re loud I have no idea if they’re more numerous or not, I suspect not…theirs is: The rich need to pay more. I mentioned up above the Elizabeth Warren quote, and sentiment that goes with it, that nobody built anything on their own. The intense and widespread enthusiasm that rises up around this makes me much more suspicious than the quote itself. How do you get happy and excited about the realizatoin that nobody is capable of doing anything on their own? That, I think, is a mask over the rich-pay-more idea. I have noticed that is where the talks go, inevitably, when allowed to continue for any length of time.
Other loud people say: I’m not a racist.
And then: We’ve got to stop being the world’s policeman.
We’ve got some daffy dames walking around saying: I just want to see more women in power.
Tea Party says: Would you quit spending so much money?
And then there are others. You can take it when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.
A woman’s reproductive decisions are none of any man’s business.
Abortion is murder.
We have to do a better job of locking up the bad guys.
The death penalty is wrong.
We are to be judged, as a nation, by how we treat the least among us.
Family is important.
Kids require discipline.
Kids should be allowed to express themselves.
We have crime because we have poverty.
Or no, we have crime because of a persistent decay in our cultural values.
When we try to figure out how an election is going to go, or if we aren’t happy with how an election went so we write letters to the politicians to try to change their minds, or prevail upon them to at least see some other issue through our eyes, what we’re dealing with is salesmanship. We’re engaging in it, and trying to form alliances with other people who are engaging in it. The same goes for the politicians trying to win those elections, they’re engaging in salesmanship. Well, a large part of that has to do with figuring out the desires of the other person, and doing something to get those desires engaged. You can see it in some of the less competent and obviously unscrupulous salesmen; they put together a pitch of, if you do X, Y is the likely result, where Y is what they’ve figured out about your needs, wants and hopes. And if they’re really clumsy about it, you’re immediately thinking “waitaminnit, what does X have to do with Y?” And the answer is, nothing. Y is what you want, X is what the salesman wants. Making your friends listen to sales pitches about soap doesn’t have much to do with turning you a business mogul, working from home, too good for the rat race.
Some of these desires are layered on top of other desires. For example, I maintain nobody really gives a fig about allowing full-fledged same-sex marriage, as opposed to civil unions with full and equivalent state-recognized privileges and rights. In that direction lies a clear and workable compromise — which very often is not reached, because the same-sex-marriage people are so eager to realize their core message which is: “I am not bigoted against homosexuals.” By crusading for the more ambitious objective and thus generating conflict and rancor where it’s entirely unnecessary, they reveal that they’re not that interested in everybody getting along, after all. They certainly aren’t interested in Barack Obama’s vision, that everyone put aside their personal animosities and come together to charge up some stairs. They want to maintain differences. The message they want to broadcast isn’t merely about them being good people; it’s about them being better people than some other people. They require a control for their experiment.
That goes double for the tax-the-rich types. They do not want to get along with others. Do I even need to be pointing that out? They want to cast a vote to raise someone else’s tax bill, and furthermore, not a whole lot of anything else matters much to them. At this point I’ve entirely abandoned the notion that they lose so much as a wink of sleep about the public debt. They aren’t still pretending to, are they?
So in sum, President Obama is wrong. That is not to say He is entirely wrong about how we could be doing better; I would partially agree with Him in this much, that perhaps we could do ourselves less damage if we looked for opportunities to blend, find out what the other fellow is trying to do, and see what can be done about bringing that guy what he needs.
(Side point: An impressive portion of His speech dealt with cracking down on those among us who do this successfully, in a way for which the only suitable adjective would be “punitive,” as in, to punish. Quite bizarre.)
But that is not what America is all about. It isn’t one of our core values, or any other kind of value. It doesn’t exist that way in our past, or in our future, or in our present. Once people figure out what needs to be done, by whatever means, they seem to be triggering a locking mechanism of sorts. Something of a “why should I think this out again, I’ve already done it” instinct. And that’s not an entirely unhealthy thing.
What I think is unhealthy, is constantly demanding the other person reject his own individual conclusions and insights and values and priorities, in favor of the group-think dictates — if and only if the group happens to be aligned with the person doing the demanding. This fair-weather-friendship to the majority opinion. Our sense of justice and fair play ought to be prevailing upon us to realize, and support, the notion that if the group consensus overrules individual sensibilities, even when the individual sensibilities are better thought-out, then that needs to be happening either all the time or not at all. And frankly, I’m not seeing any Americans anywhere, really stepping up to the plate and saying it should happen all of the time. Instead, from what I see, it looks like everyone is placing their own cherished beliefs on the highest pedestal they possibly can, and that includes President Obama…and then trying to sell this narrative that it’s the other guy doing this, and it’s the other guy who has the problem.
One other thought: That list of one-liners up there that arouse all this passion, such that people vote on their own selected one-liner and only that one, ignoring everything else for all practical purposes…I have the perception that the length of this list, rather than its content, exerts the greatest influence on our ability to come together as a nation and make decisions at the ballot box. That is to say, when there are too many of these things, we lose our ability to competently express thoughts to be carried out by our representatives. This is an ability that we never have leveraged to impressive effect in our history since, well, ever; our national pride has had to be invested in simply having the elections. Well, that’s something all by itself. But for us to become even weaker still at this ability to elect effectively, is not a good thing, and more issues on the list certainly do hamper that ability.
I further have the impression that the list shrinks and grows, very slowly, in a cyclical way as older generations die off and newer ones take their place. Right now, I think, the list is about as long as it’s ever been. The obvious solution to the problem is that some compromise is in order. People need to do a competent and honest job of declaring what is important to them, versus what is just a nice-to-have; they need to learn the true art of compromise. I said “true,” and this is the source of my biggest complaint against the President’s speech. It represents the sort of false compromise for which Obama has become notorious. Stem to stern, it says “we all need to come together and make sacrifices, stop worrying about what we want, and put our focus on the things I want and My campaign contributors want.” It is an object lesson in the difference between true leadership and simple selfishness.